Earlier this year, while on a judging committee for a prestigious award competition, I discovered that a couple of judges had a bias against work done by outside consultants. They felt that communications were more authentic when created by an internal team. I certainly agree that an internal team has a depth of institutional knowledge that a consultant does not have, but many times they need outside insights to do their best work. A consultant brings clearly defined expertise to the work and the partnership between the two leads to effective results. If you are in-house and thinking about making your team more effective here are a few things to consider:
One of the most important factors in a partnership is having different perspectives. The in-house team knows the community, institutional priorities, and how things get done. That knowledge can also act as an anchor, holding the team down. I have worked as an in-house creative and know firsthand that “we have never done it that way” can hinder creative thinking. Second-guessing the outcome of a decision blocks decisions before they can be further explored.
When you are in it day after day you can be too close to see the right solution. A consultant brings clarity to problems that can be too hard to solve internally. In order to do that it is imperative that they listen to their clients’ unique perspective and balance it with strategic and creative solutions. They have a deep knowledge of a targeted expertise and stay on top of marketing and industry trends in order to best advise their clients.
By combining these different perspectives, you can bring together an understanding of the culture with a team with an outside viewpoint to build on new ideas.
When Elias Martinez, assistant vice president for marketing, was developing the brand campaign for Texas State, he shared the brand platform and creative idea developed by his team with three different specialized, subject matter expert creative firms. He then took the results in-house to develop the final work.
“One of my team’s biggest strengths is our institutional knowledge and familiarity with the university. It can also be our biggest weakness. Being part of the university’s day-to-day grind can take you down the path toward incremental change, not meaningful brand reinvention. By inviting people we admire and trust to work alongside us, we unlocked new possibilities and created a very dynamic and distinctive new brand campaign that’s authentic to Texas State University.”
Years ago I was teaching a class on Professional Ethics at the Art Institute of Boston. I brought years of experience to the group but I could see their eyes light up when a visiting speaker would share an insight—that I had already mentioned. As frustrating as this was, I knew there was a legitimacy the speaker brought to the group that I was not delivering.
In-house teams have the same depth of experience but for many reasons they may sometimes need that outside voice to support what they already know. A VP or AVP may hire a consultant to affirm why things should be done a certain way, build a case for spending the money to do a project, or bring structure to the project to allow for objective reasoning.
When internally you can’t get the buy-in you need, it helps to have someone in your corner providing legitimacy to the rationale.
I have redesigned dozens of institution magazines and along the way worked with many talented in-house designers and editors. What I have learned is that few come to their position from a magazine background. Editors tend to move into the position from newspapers while the designers inherit the magazine as part of a larger role working on marketing communications. That does not mean that they are not capable of creating a magazine, but it can mean that they don’t know best practices or have experience collaborating or art directing editorial artwork. A partnership with a firm who has expertise in the areas you may not can help to elevate the work and educate the internal team.
Eric Cardenas, director of publications and public affairs at University of Tampa notes, “UT’s long-standing partnership with 2communiqué has provided not only expert guidance and direction to the magazine, but also stability and consistency over the tenures of four editors. This partnership has brought unprecedented editorial sophistication and reader engagement, while also helping staff define the magazine’s place in the mission of the University.”
Over the years more creative firms and editorial consultants have been bringing their experience in consumer magazines to the education sector. Redesigning the magazines for internal teams to produce moving forward, consulting on issue development, or acting as an external art department. The result is the quality of the magazine improving exponentially (anyone that has been tracking the work in the CASE Editors Magazine Exchange can attest to that). The stories have always been there, but now they are matched with strategic editorial plans and sophisticated visuals.
I know from my own experience that when I am held accountable I am more likely to follow through with something. Work-out at home alone? Chances are I will find an excuse to skip it. Run with a friend? I’m in.
I have not done a study to prove it, but I would bet that since the 2009 recession internal teams have more on their plates than ever before. Budgets and teams were cut and they have never fully recovered (the pandemic was then the second blow). But it isn’t just financial implications—there is also the fact that there are more ways to engage with people than ever before so the average workload has increased (this is from my informal qualitative study). Having that friend holding you accountable can help keep you on track.
That accountability can be about the schedule. It can also be about pushing ideas. When you are juggling a dozen things it is understandable that the simpler solution may be chosen. But at the end of the day you want to do the best possible work. That outside voice can be the one that gets you there.
Back to that team size. I think that everyone can agree that the workload in communications offices has increased over the years. Print production is typically done in-house now, and there are more and more ways to share content—and measure the outcomes. Despite this, internal teams remain relatively small. Partnering with consultants allows for the work to get done without adding full time employees.
One of our strategic partners, Laura Cole, now a content strategy consultant, shared an experience from when she was working in-house at the University of Central Florida. At the time they had plenty of story ideas being submitted, but between juggling working on the magazine, the news site, social media, marketing projects, strategic initiatives, websites, and community messaging, they were spread thin—even with a decent-sized internal team. They decided to partner with Dog Ear Creative [also a 2communiqué partner on Georgetown Business] to dig for stories for specific departments in the magazine and to help build out a database of story ideas.
Laura notes, “It was nice just having someone else saying, no really, this is a cool story and people will care about it and here’s a way you could package it. It took that one thing off our plates—and gave us more time to do the actual work.”
Finally, with the increased workload and pressure in the education sector we can sometimes forget that we got into this work because we enjoy it and want to use our skills to advance institutions. Whether it is making a magazine—thinking about the readers, stories on campus, art direction and design; creating a year-end video that captures the campus spirit; or developing a campaign that will have an impact on your enrollment or institution’s financial health, our work as communications specialists is important and fun. Consultants are not mired down in the every day must-do list, back-to-back internal meetings, and the office politics which allows us to support the team and be cheerleaders.
Alison Benie, VP Bowdoin notes, “Remind us that we are having fun.”
Sometimes you just need another perspective.